Pelini's return seen as bridge between old, new Nebraska
LINCOLN, Neb. -- They called this place Fort Knox, because it took the equivalent of an iris scan to get into the second floor football offices. Men with polo shirts, khakis and a deep purpose put together 18-hour days here, passing by the glass case with the five national championship trophies, never really stopping.
But Bo is here now. He is dressed in tennis shoes, black shorts and a gray T-shirt saturated in sweat. He's just come in from an afternoon workout, just rolled in from a national championship game, a couple hundred handshakes, and a cross-country move. This is the New Nebraska -- which is actually the Old Nebraska -- and Bo Pelini says his door will always be open.
He's barely eased into his chair when a strapping young man pokes his head into the office.
"What's up, big man?" Pelini says. "Give me one minute."
In nearly any other winter, these would be nervous times on the Plains, with national letter-of-intent day barreling in like a bitter artic front and the Cornhuskers lagging behind many of their Big 12 rivals. But an odd sort of calm permeates at a time when there is, really, no time to sit and chat. Bo is here now.
He knows how important all of this is to 1.7 million others.
"I can't speak on what happened here the last four years because I wasn't here," Pelini says. "But it just seems like for some reason at the end there was a little bit of a disconnect.
"You just have to embrace the tradition. It's unique because it becomes the identity of a lot of people in the state. I understand how special a place this is."
There was a time not too long ago, in an era that seems so different now, when Pelini was considered the outsider. At Nebraska, pre-2002, assistants rarely left. They bought houses, weathered 9-3 seasons, and stayed for a couple of decades until their knees or voices gave out. But in 2002, near the end of a 7-7 season, coach Frank Solich fired nearly half of his staff in the biggest coaching purge since the early 1960s. Reporters camped out in below-freezing temperatures just to catch candidates shuffling by in SUVs assistant coaching candidates.
When Solich hired Pelini as his defensive coordinator in 2002, it smacked against Nebraska tradition. Pelini was an NFL assistant, with no ties to the state or the program. He was uber-confident, a trait that almost seemed anti-Nebraska. His first meeting with the defense was so legendary it was detailed in a widely circulated e-mail. With a steely glare and get-tough speech, Pelini, supposedly, put the fear of God into a handful of players.
"That meeting," he says, "probably got overblown a bit."
But it only boosted his popularity among Nebraskans. They didn't know that on a Friday night in 2003, hours before the season opener, Pelini sat in his office, running his hands through his closely cropped hair, fretting over whether his defense was ready.
"I have no idea what's going to happen tomorrow," he told his brother Carl. "I don't know if we're going to come out and tear it up or if we're going to lay an egg."
Solich eventually walked in and said he'd be fine. The next day, the Huskers forced five turnovers in a 17-7 win against No. 24 Oklahoma State.
Pelini became a cult hero, part Bob Devaney, part John Rambo. He cussed out former Kansas State coach Bill Snyder for running up the score, chest-bumped his own players and took Nebraska's defense from laughingstock to a Top 10 ranking. He did it all in 12 months.
When Solich was abruptly fired, it was Pelini who finished off a 10-3 season as the interim head coach, beating Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl. As the stadium rocked that night to chants of "We want Bo," it seemed as if Pelini was on the verge of his first head coaching job. But athletic director Steve Pederson hired Callahan, a bigger-name pro coach.
Pelini was miffed and said Pederson never really gave him a shot. Years passed, but Nebraskans never forgot. When their beloved team was stumbling through a five-game losing skid last fall, the locals hung signs in drugstores and posted on message boards hoping for Pelini's return.
"He never harbored any grudge against the people of Nebraska," Carl Pelini says. "He had a great experience here. They really made him feel welcome and feel good about the entire state. I think he always looked back at Nebraska with fond memories."
The thing about Pelini is that normally, everything is black and white. Follow the rules, do what's expected, and everything will be fine and fun with Bo. They'll establish friendships, they'll win games.
They'll believe they can do anything. Barrett Ruud was a linebacker on the '03 team, a Lincoln kid who was occasionally knocked for his speed -- or lack thereof. Four years later, he's a starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
They'd talk on the phone after Pelini left, about football and life and what Ruud needed to do to succeed in the NFL. It didn't matter that Pelini was an assistant at Oklahoma in 2004 and Ruud had a new coach at Nebraska. That door was still open, especially for friends.
Just after Pelini cleaned out his office, he gathered with at least 15 of his ex-players for a goodbye dinner.
"I enjoyed football a lot that year," Ruud says.
"He definitely helped me get to where I am."
It is just past lunchtime on Monday, and Tom Osborne passes through the second floor with a group of wide-eyed women. He's giving a tour. Two years ago, Osborne ran for governor, his days in athletics far behind him, and something unthinkable happened he lost. He slipped out of the public eye, settled in for some quality time with his wife, Nancy, then all heck broke loose in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers imploded in a 5-7 season, the athletic department was in disarray and the only person who could seemingly pull it together was the 70-year-old with the grandfatherly smile and a connection to Nebraska's storied past.
Shortly after he was hired as AD, Osborne fired Callahan, hit the road and recruited for a week, and wrapped his coaching search up within eight days. Initially, Pelini supporters feared their man's hard-nosed style and occasional use of profanity wouldn't sit well with Osborne's dadgum, clean-living approach.
In Pelini's time, he'll rely on gut feelings, massive research and perfect fits.
"We're not going to judge our recruiting class on how the analysts rate the class," Pelini says. "They don't know what we're looking for.
"We'll build our own stars."
They'll turn a few heads. About 30 minutes after Pelini's hire, Osborne called Micah Kreikemeier, an unknown linebacker from tiny West Point Central Catholic in rural Nebraska, to offer a scholarship. Kreikemeier's dad was a walk-on for Osborne in the early 1980s.
It was seen as a symbolic gesture that Nebraska wants to get back to its roots. And in some ways, Pelini's hire sent the same message.
"I don't have the sense that he wants to come in here and reshape the world in his image," Osborne says. "He's going to build on the strengths and the traditions. And of course, the things that need to be changed, he'll add to the picture.
"Bo and [Oklahoma coach] Bob Stoops are good friends. They came from the same high school and the same town. That's what Bob did at Oklahoma. He came in and embraced the Oklahoma tradition and culture and built on it. That's what I see Bo intending to do."
There was no known get-together at a restaurant in Lincoln when Callahan faded away in December. Nebraskans will say that four years passed and they never really knew their head coach. He was insulated up on that second floor, and in his rare free time, Callahan retreated to a large house that sits outside of Lincoln's city limits. It seemed sort of strange. Callahan could stand on the sideline in front of 80,000 Nebraskans but rarely mingled with the locals.
One week, and Pelini is seemingly in the middle of everything. He bought a house in South Lincoln, near an upscale mall and a neighborhood he lived in four years ago. He wants his kids to grow up in the same Catholic parish.
He wants to fit in with the people.
But at the Nebraska Bookstore, it's a sign that a weary state is finally moving forward. Mike Kortum, an employee at the store, says they've sold thousands of the red shirts. They bring solace in a cold winter and a place that has had far too much change.
"He's the blue-collar type of hard worker, he's the guy who will shoot it straight to you," Kortum says. "He's not going to feed you a bunch of fluff.
"That's why people here like him. He's like them."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.